Federal Agents Raid Office of Special Counsel
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Nearly two dozen federal agents yesterday raided the Washington headquarters of the agency that protects government whistle-blowers, as part of an intensifying criminal investigation of its leader, who is fighting allegations of improper political bias and obstruction of justice.
Agents fanned out yesterday morning in the agency's building on M Street, where they sequestered Office of Special Counsel chief Scott J. Bloch for questioning, served grand-jury subpoenas on 17 employees and shut down access to computer networks in a search lasting more than five hours.
Bloch, who was nominated to his post by President Bush in 2003, is the principal official responsible for protecting federal employees from reprisals for complaints about waste and fraud. He also polices violations of Hatch Act prohibitions on political activities in federal offices.
Bloch has long been a target of criticism, some of it by his agency's career officials, but the FBI's abrupt seizure of computers and records marked a substantial escalation of the executive branch's probe of his conduct. Retired FBI agents and former prosecutors called the raid an unusual, if not unprecedented, intrusion on the work of a federal agency.
Agents from the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general's office, who have been investigating Bloch for more than two years, visited his home on Stockade Drive in Alexandria yesterday. They left carrying boxes of files.
A Kansas lawyer who previously worked at the Justice Department's Task Force on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bloch repeatedly clashed with his own workforce and with other Bush administration officials he targeted for improper behavior. By his own account, the White House twice asked him to resign.
Yesterday, a Bush spokesman declined to address Bloch's status. Roscoe C. Howard, the former U.S. attorney in the District who represents Bloch, declined to comment.
The agents from the FBI's Washington Field Office arrived around 10:30 a.m., just as senior staff members had begun their weekly management meeting. Deputy Special Counsel James Byrne later told employees that they were not the targets of criminal investigators, who were interested in Bloch's conduct, according to two witnesses.
Byrne instructed workers to notify him if Bloch attempted to contact them for any reason, said the witnesses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared becoming ensnared in the case.
"The subpoena is very broad, and it covers a lot of territory," special counsel spokesman James P. Mitchell told reporters outside the agency's locked offices. "We're all just standing back and watching the agents do their work."
Since Bloch's confirmation 4 1/2 years ago, he has been fighting calls for his ouster by independent watchdog groups. He drew fire quickly for removing from the OSC Web site references to the agency's authority to hear complaints by federal employees who alleged discrimination based on their sexual orientation, said Debra S. Katz, a lawyer representing OSC whistle-blowers.
Complaints from Katz's clients and others ultimately prompted the inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management to begin examining Bloch's treatment of workers and his handling of cases involving whistle-blowers at other agencies. During the probe, Bloch hired the technology service Geeks on Call to erase his computer hard drive and those of two aides, giving rise to new allegations that he was obstructing justice.